Student Rabbi Loren Filson Lapidus engages Jewish youths in Sioux Falls, South Dakota - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Student Rabbi Loren Filson Lapidus engages Jewish youths in Sioux Falls, South Dakota

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Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Jewish rite of passage 

Youths embrace intensive studies before celebrating their bar or bat mitzvah. 

When 13-year-old Tessa Crosby stood at the front of Mt. Zion temple eight months ago to read the Torah, she started a new family tradition. 

By Jennifer Gerrietts
For the Argus Leader, Sioux Falls, South Dakota 

When 13-year-old Tessa Crosby stood at the front of Mt. Zion temple eight months ago to read the Torah, she started a new family tradition. 

The Sioux Falls girl's bat mitzvah, her adult entrance into the local Jewish congregation, was meaningful in many ways. But Crosby said she was particularly touched because her mother and grandmother never had the opportunity she had to study and lead services. 

"Generations of women didn't get to do this," Crosby said. "I thought it was really cool to be the first woman in my family to have a bat mitzvah." 

Jewish students at Mt. Zion Temple in Sioux Falls begin studying for the milestone as early as kindergarten. They learn Hebrew, history and do service projects in the community. The ceremony known as bar mitzvah, for boys, takes place after they turn 13, and bat mitzvah, for girls, after the 12th birthday. 

Each congregation sets its own requirements, but most students learn how to recite the blessings from the Torah, the first five books of Moses. They also may lead part of the service that day, said student Rabbi Loren Filson Lapidus, who serves the Sioux Falls synagogue. At that point, they become full adult members of the congregation, and count toward the minyan, a quorum of 10 members required for communal prayer. 

Students get to pick the date of their bar or bat mitzvah, following their birthdates. Filson Lapidus encourages the youths to select a date where the text of the Torah speaks to them. Most adults will remember their text for life and often read yearly during services. 

For 16-year-old Logan Hansman, the Torah text for her January 2005 bat mitzvah was perfect. It was the Ten Commandments. By the time her ceremony was scheduled, she felt like she had learned so much it was fulfilling to be able to lead the service. 

"It was such a good experience," Hansman said. "It was really important to me to do this." 

The goal is to give young people a sense of their history and tradition and to engage them into their faith as adults, the student rabbi said. 

"For the community, it's exciting to welcome another member of the Jewish people," Filson Lapidus said. "As the rabbinic presence, there is something really wonderful to witness in their adding to the community and their gaining of confidence in their year of preparation." 

In the Sioux Falls Jewish congregation, the last three young people to join the temple as adults have been girls. The student rabbi also is working with three adult women to help them study for belated bat mitzvahs, because they came from traditions where they were not allowed to participate in the milestone. 

When Tessa's mother, Sara Crosby, was a teen, bat mitzvahs were commonly done for girls in Reform Judaism, a more liberal denomination. However, Sara Crosby grew up in a Conservative Judaism congregation, where the study and ceremony were not an option. Her mother, Tessa's grandmother, came of age in an Orthodox congregation, an even more traditional denomination, and also never had a bat mitzvah. 

So while Tessa studied to be able to lead services, her mother learned some Hebrew also, studying enough to be able to read the Torah at her daughter's bat mitzvah. It was the first time she had read in the temple, making it technically her bat mitzvah, too. In fact, Tessa's ceremony featured readings by only female family and friends. 

"It was really special. I wanted to be able to do it for Tessa," Sara Crosby said. "I love to see her confidence in being who she is." 

The Sioux Falls mom was proud of her daughter, who gave up many activities with friends and school on Friday nights to prepare. The girls do more than just plan a celebration of adulthood, and instead undergo an intense period of study, she said. 

Thirteen-year-old Zoey Groman, who had her bat mitzvah in August, said she knew the year of rigorous study before the ceremony would be difficult, but she was up to the challenge. She met weekly with tutors or the rabbi to practice her Hebrew, learning what she would need to chant and read during the service. 

"It was all worth it," Groman said. "I wanted to learn." 

In addition to their studies, the girls all did service projects. Crosby collected new blankets that she gave to elders at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in a special dinner and ceremony, where her family filled their car with 75 pounds of beef brisket and potatoes to share. She planned the event to help bring together for healing two groups of people who were survivors of genocide - Native Americans and Jews. 

"It affected our whole family in profound ways," Sara Crosby said. "I think it helped give all of us a sense of family and tradition and history." 

Since the Jewish community is quite small in Sioux Falls, there usually are only one to two bar or bat mitzvahs per year. About a dozen children attend weekly Sunday school at the temple. Filson Lapidus said the closeness of the Jewish community helps keep the young people involved in the congregation. The ceremony also is a good way for the young people to invite their non-Jewish friends to celebrate with them an important milestone in their faith, she said. 

"Here there is a lot of strong Jewish identity because the students are such a small minority," Filson Lapidus said. "From that, there is a real sense of pride." 

The three girls said it can sometimes be difficult to be part of a religious minority. Everyone knows they are Jewish, and sometimes people make comments about parts of Judaism they don't understand, they said. 

Groman said her friends were open-minded and happy to learn more through her bat mitzvah. And since that significant day, she's been more committed than ever to her congregation and her faith. 

"I'll grow more, and I'll be helping more," Groman said. "It's more important now and even more fun." 

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.